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November 24, 2017

Green Lanterns #1 and #2 (review)


Green Lanterns #1 and #2 (review)
(DC Comics, June 2016)
Writers: #1 =Geoff Johns and Sam Humphries
#2 – Sam Humphries

The comic book characters known as and featuring in the new title “Green Lanterns” are, in American comic book publisher DC Comics’ mythology, a corps of interstellar peacekeepers, their numbers derived from various alien species. Each Green Lantern is armed with a ring capable of translating thought into plasma constructions. The concept remains fresh even though it was (re-)formulated in 1959 (there was another, non-science fiction version dating back to 1940).

We have written about two “Green Lantern” comics before (Parallax Error and Edge of Oblivion) with disparaging conclusions. This review is no different in tone, although on this occasion we concentrate upon the broader, systemic flaws of one of the writers, Geoff Johns, rather than the editorial failure in conceptual delivery we described previously.

In the first issue, two new Green Lanterns, Simon Paz and Jessica Cruz, are compelled by veteran Green Lantern Hal Jordan to both work together and are mandatorily required to join the group of superheroes called the Justice League. A threat looms on the horizon, the fury of a rival corps called the Red Lanterns, as well as a new cosmic weapon which the Red Lanterns are tracking down.

The first issue is credited to two writers, Mr Johns and Sam Humphries. Mr Johns has an easily recognisable and stagnant strategy in writing superhero comic books for DC Comics.

First, Mr Johns furiously plants the seeds of future plotlines within the text. Each nascent tangent will bring the reader to a future story. There is rarely any breathing space for the reader. In Justice League #50 we observed the sheer number of springboards entirely interfered with the plot. We catalogue the plot set-ups in “Green Lanterns” here:

1. the Red Lanterns provide a monologue in the introductory narrative, and then appear posing on the final page, a plot bridge for the serialised story is the inevitably immediate looming threat (there is no likelihood of the Red Lanterns slowly navigating into position, and indeed in the second issue the Red Lanterns’ threat manifests as a zombie-esque attack);

2. Mr Johns has the separate power sources of the rings of the two new Green Lanterns fused into one battery, compelling the two characters to cooperate and establishing the foundations for a story where they initially do not, but then inevitably learn to do so in order to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat;

3. Mr Johns writes Simon Paz in the classic “Spider-Man” dilemma of not being able to fulfil personal obligations because of his duties as a superhero (in this instance, failing to check-in to the FBI), setting up the repeated scenarios where Simon Paz must disregard the laws of the land to enforce justice in space;

4. Simon Paz has to also deal with the label of being an Islamic terrorist, setting up the scenario of an intergalactic peacekeeper being subject to allegations of terrorism which he will inevitably overcome through a public act of valour and self-sacrifice;

5. Jessica Cruz has various personal issues crammed into little more than two pages’ worth of exploration, which bubbles up like a fart in a spa by the second issue;

6. Simon Paz and Jessica Cruz squabble over who is the more senior in the pecking order of Green Lanterns, a theme extended in the second issue, setting up a scenario where the two fail because they cannot agree who is in charge but will inevitably overcome through an acknowledgement of equal partnership;

7. Jessica Cruz is so naive as to the nature of her abilities that she does not even know that she must periodically recharge the ring, setting up a scenario of failure through inexperience, which she will inevitably overcome through patient learning.

Struggle then systemically and formulaically leads to inevitable heroism alternatively the inevitable lessons of heroism. Surprise does not fit within the mantra.

In-between all of that paceless clutter, Mr Johns indulges in three interrelated themes:

a. First, Mr Johns ingratiates himself with his audience and works hard to establish himself as one of them through recantation of a precious history. Continuity of the characters, and all of the quirky and sometimes pointless twists and turns over decades, is a shared knowledge that puts the writer and reader in cahoots. Mr Johns thereby gains the trust and confidence of those readers entirely and almost exclusively devoted to continuity. In the first issue it is the lengthy roll call of previous human Green Lanterns extolled by the Red Lantern commentary on the first page, and furthered by Simon Paz when he describes himself as the latest, the seventeeth human Green Lantern in a venerated lineage.

In this regard Mr Johns affirms that he is the high priest of continuity, underscoring the importance of his long run on the title in the 2000s. He targets the core fandom, the people who lord in their fussy knowledge of the particulars of each adventure over the decades, and who writer Warren Ellis so derides in his book “Come In Alone” (2001). This class of readers who will buy a title, no matter how bad it is, so long as the title perpetuates the character’s adventures. It is a narrow bandwidth strategy which excludes new readers;

b. Second, and related to the first indulgence, in the first issue Mr Johns creates a sense of nobility around the old characters, doing everything possible to recognise them as iconic, and entirely in contrast with the new, still unworthy characters. Mr Johns did this most notably in “JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice” (DC Comics, 2003) (written with David S. Goyer) in which he had Superman in the opening chapter praising the historical tradition and inspiration of the Justice Society in a conversation with the earliest version of Green Lantern. Mr Johns then indulges, in the penultimate chapter, in portraying the vast ensemble of characters charging heroically into battle against their enemies in a double-page spread which looked like some reimagining of the Charge of the Light Brigade. The High Priest decrees that the history must be elevated and properly revered. Thus Hal Jordan appears and commands as if he is the burning bush addressing Moses, the new Green Lanterns depicted as humble acolytes: the heroes of the Justice League stand about in unnatural poses as if they were demi-gods carved from marble. None of them are human and approachable, except for the over-awed and therefore flawed Green Lanterns. Mr Johns is one with his zealous and critical audience. These newcomers are not worthy and beneath the readership zealots, but once the old guard that so adore have trained them, readers should reconsider judgment.

c. Flowing in turn from this, the iconic characters are Olympian, untouchable, and revered, but the newcomers have feet of clay. They suffer from racism, self-doubt, anxiety, and posturing pride. The dialogue for this is clumsy:

Paz: “You’re obviously new so stand down, rookie. I’ll take care of this. It won’t take long.”

Also,

Cruz: “I may be new to being a Green Lantern, but you didn’t even give me a chance –”
Paz: “See that? This is Earth. There are already five Green Lanterns. Five.”
Cruz: “Six,”
Paz: “And that’s not my fault. I didn’t just put this ring on. It has to choose you.”
Cruz: “It did.”
Paz: “After me, right? So I have seniority, Hal.”

The writing has all the process and finesse of a dot-to-dot puzzle.

But more than that, and the fundamental complaint of this critique, it is devoid of risk and innovation. Mr Johns mistakenly believes that giving a Green Lantern ring to a black American Muslim and an Hispanic American woman are innovative risks.

The other major American publisher of superhero comics, Marvel Comics, has sometimes been similarly cautious with innovation (temporarily retiring the venerated character Captain America, and replacing the character with a black associate called The Falcon, a recent development with only mild impact). But Marvel Comics has also recently been radical, most notably with replacing the heavily-muscled and very male Thor with a female character suffering from cancer which is, heroically, made worse everytime she wields the hammer (which we have reviewed previously). Marvel Comics have also de-sexualised the female character Ms Marvel. That character is now called “Captain Marvel”, wears more clothes, has a practical short haircut, and is immeasurably more likeable than its previous incarnation. Rather than continuing to appease a predominantly male readership which liked oogling a very busty blonde woman in a navy blue swimsuit, Marvel Comics took a counterintuitive risk: Captain Marvel now looks and acts like a wry Air Force colonel rather than a self-doubting sex toy (and we have written about this character previously, too). In doing so Marvel Comics brought into the fold a new readership, a devoted female audience. Cautious only sometimes, Marvel Comics has proven itself willing to adopt genuine innovations which have been commercially successful.

It should be said that Image Comics, which has been the third player in the US comic book industry since the 1990s, does nothing but take risks. Sometimes these fall flat (notably “Babuska”, and also “The Revisionist”) but more often than not these risks are critically and commercially successful. Notable amongst Image Comics’ publications are “East of West”, “Pretty Deadly” and, perhaps the best comic presently in the market, “Deadly Class”, of which we shall write about in the forthcoming months.

Mr Johns takes no real risks in this title (and neither does M Humphries). Mr Johns is plainly committed to an exercise of painting within the lines, which appeals to a tight and noisy core of devoted baby boomer fans. As their numbers diminish, so too will Mr Johns’ commercial success. As for innovation, and any consequential critical recognition for Mr Johns and his colleague, “Green Lanterns” #1 and #2 demonstrates that this is further away than ever.

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